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Fight the Fires that Be

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September 16, 2011

Fight the Fires that Be

Women struggle to make fire-fighting profession more inclusive

by Lisa Laventure

Photo: Caitlin Crawshaw

LONDON, ON—Chelsea Merkt-Kit leans back casually in her chair. Her surroundings are calm. For the moment, she’s without her team, a group of men she calls her “brothers.” Her long blonde hair is pulled back into a neat and tidy ponytail. Her navy blue uniform is oversized and engulfs her petite frame.

The crest on her uniform reads the same as every man’s in the building: “Be caring, be safe, and prevent harm.” At 400 Horton Street, London, Ontario’s central fire house, these are words by which men and women alike live and die.

But Merkt-Kit isn’t who you would usually picture climbing a ladder into a burning building. The 27-year-old Waterloo native is 5’7 and 125 pounds.

“People are always surprised when they hear what I do,” she says. “Especially when I’m in a dress and heels.”

She’s one of only eight women currently working as a professional firefighter in London, a city that boasts a force of almost 400.

“Of course, it’s a male dominated profession,” Merkt-Kit admits. She cautiously explains that you need to be a certain type of woman to survive as a firefighter.

“You have to get along well with men, and allow them to be themselves,” she says.

Yet the small number of female firefighters in Canada paints a picture of a service still dictated not simply by personality, but by the sturdy persistence of gendered labour roles.

Women account for only three per cent of professional firefighters in Canada, says Paul Laffin, a data dissemination officer at Statistics Canada. In Ontario, women in firefighting are paid on average $13,500 less than their male counterparts.

Nevertheless, Merkt-Kit is among the first generation of female firefighters to benefit from earlier steps toward equality in the workplace, says Karen Simpson, an International Trustee with the International Association of Women in Fire and Emergency Services (also known as I-Women), in a phone interview from Chatham-Kent. She’s been a professional firefighter in Ontario for seven years.

She hopes that women like herself, and Merkt-Kit, can create another wave of change in the service, one which will make firefighting increasingly open and safe for women.

Over the last decade, Simpson says, training to become a firefighter in Canada has become more accessible and standardized. Women are entering the workforce with more confidence, having proved themselves physically and mentally against the men in school.

And while these systemic changes speak volumes, it’s the women who blazed the trail for the “new generation” who know best how far firefighting has come.

Women such as Kim Harrison. The team captain of the Medical Response Unit at the Kearney Volunteer Fire Department in Kearney, Ontario, Harrison has been fighting fires for 26 years.

Forty per cent of Harrison’s team are women.

“A lot of women assume they can’t join, that they don’t have enough strength,” Harrison said over the phone from Kearney. “We are trying to open doors for them.”

She does so by serving as a role model herself. Harrison gives tours of the fire station to women interested in the service, and often speaks at local schools. She urges children to use the word “firefighter” rather than “fireman.” For almost three decades, she’s been slowly working to change people’s attitudes.

“This is not a male place anymore,” Harrison says proudly.

Fire Chief Rick Phillip is thankful for her presence. For Phillip, whose wife and grand-daughter are also firefighters, women in firefighting is only natural. “They are far more compassionate,” he adds.

Overcoming the systemic difficulties that prevent women from joining the service is also necessary if Ontario hopes to keep both professional and volunteer fire squads full, says Carl G. Pearson, president of the Fire Fighters Association of Ontario.

“Half the population is female,” he said in a phone interview, adding that the assumption that female firefighters are less capable than their male counterparts is simply incorrect.

A department such as Chief Phillip’s in Kearney is a glimpse into a promising future, says I-Women’s Simpson. Yet, she says, there is much more work to be done.

“It doesn’t matter if women are as fit or better trained. If the administration is not prepared to accept women, there is going to be a struggle,” says Simpson.

Only a few weeks ago, Simpson and the I-Women organization demanded that the concerns of women in firefighting be heard at the US National Fallen Firefighters Foundation’s 2nd Annual Research Symposium.

Right now, Simpson explained, there is no data exploring the relationship between fighting fire and reproductive health, and specifically how chemicals produced in a fire can affect a woman’s ability to have healthy babies.

I-Women managed, for the first time, to get the questions of reproductive health discussed as stand-alone issues at the conference.

Simpson hopes that within the next three to five years, with adequate funding and research, the fire service will start to properly address these concerns. While the spark of change has been ignited, it’s going to be up to the “next generation” to keep “pounding their fists and stomping their feet.”

It’s probably going to depend on women like Merkt-Kit, who was married last year. Her husband is a professional firefighter in Waterloo. And while she is a face for how far the service has come, she may soon be affected by where firefighting, for women, has not yet gone.

When asked if the two had yet started a family, she smiled.

“No, not yet, but soon.”

Lisa Laventure is a graduate student in journalism at the University of Western Ontario.

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